Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. (1 Timothy 4:1-5)
These verse were probably written 5-10 years after Romans and 1 Corinthians. Paul’s teaching on the conscience was well circulated in writing and taught in person throughout his three missionary journeys. This seems to allow him to be very brief with his statements in 1 Timothy. He gave Timothy a warning about false teachers who will come into the church. They will have two false teachings: forbidding marriage and certain foods.
These are familiar conscience issues. Marriage is an issue of the conscience in 1 Corinthians 7 and 9. Food is perhaps Paul’s most commonly used example (Romans 14, 1 Corinthians 8-10) of an issue of conscience. But there are new things to be learned from this short passage.
Why do these men have and teach these scruples? Because their consciences have been “seared.” This idea of searing the conscience is found only in this passage. In fact, the word καυστηριάζω (“cauterize”) is found nowhere else in the New Testament. What does Paul mean by this?
The first view is that Paul used “burned” to illustrate loss of sensitization. Scarred skin can lack sensation, referring to a conscience that, having been often sinned against and ignored, has become insensitive. The lesson would then be that we must follow our conscience because if we don’t, we will stop feeling its promptings concerning right and wrong, and we will then be without an important God-given moral compass. This doesn’t fit well with the situation in 1 Timothy 4, though, where we find overly-strict teachers.
Luther’s view was the opposite. The false teachers were overly scrupulous; their consciences are too sensitive.1 He suggested Paul had in mind the hypersensitivity of a fresh burn.
There is a better view. In the TDNT, we find this description of καυστηριάζω:2
In the NT the word occurs only once in a figurative sense. At 1 Tm. 4:2 the false teachers are described as men who have been branded in their consciences, i.e., who bear the mark of slaves. The meaning is that they are in bondage to secret sin. Proclaiming a doctrine which makes strong ascetic demands, they are themselves controlled by self-seeking and covetousness. They are secretly the slaves of satanic and demonic powers which make them their instruments.
In the background stands the custom of branding slaves and criminals. Among the Greeks, branding was mainly a punishment for runaway slaves, but at his own whim the owner could punish other offenses in the same way. The mark was usually put on the forehead with an iron.
Fee discusses this view: “But it is equally possible that he intends to suggest that their consciences carry Satan’s brand (as NEB, Bernard, Kelly). This seems more in keeping with the context.”3 Lock prefers it: “Not ‘rendered callous as by medical treatment,’…but rather ‘branded with the brand of slavery to their true master, Satan.’”4
Being “seared” in one’s conscience indicates neither a strict nor a silent conscience. Rather, it means that one’s moral center is ruled by an evil master (a demon).5 There is a spiritual evil behind the moral positions of some people. These are extreme cases and of course it would be a mistake to assert that all Christian leaders who teach strict scruples are led by demons.
If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. (1 Timothy 4:6)
Paul told Timothy exactly how to deal with these false teachers. A good Christian teacher must teach the truth: “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.” When teachers want to force strict scruples on their followers, they should be countered with the truth that everything created by God is to be received (under the right conditions, which we’ll discuss below). When we encounter teachers who demand their own scruples—even if they are led by demons—we need nothing more than God’s Word to correct them.
One lesson that should impact every Bible teacher and preacher is that the “good servant” teaches that God’s gifts may be received with thanksgiving. We must note that one of the convictions Paul expressed as the teaching of the “good servant” was a conviction that Paul personally held. He was convicted not to marry. He favored the conviction of celibacy.6 But he said good teachers teach that marriage should be received with thanksgiving. When we are convinced of an application, we may teach that application. But we must teach the underlying personal nature of it. Our logical biblical application should not be generalized and forced on others.
Some believe “that” in v. 3 refers to foods only.7, 8 But it makes more sense to understand “that” as referring to both marriage and food9 because Paul’s single solution then covers both errors of the false teachers. If we insist that “that” only refers to food, then Paul left Timothy with no answer for the marriage question. Further, the answer works for both issues. Marriage and foods were both created by God and given to mankind. They should both be received with thanksgiving. Ridderbos says,
Those who believe and have right knowledge of the truth (cf. 1 Cor. 8:1ff.) look to God as the Creator of what the false teachers forbid use. This holds for eating and drinking and marrying. What in faith and with thanksgiving is received from the hand of God is not to be rejected. It gets its holiness through the Word of God that speaks of the redemption of the whole life, and through prayer in which it is received believingly (1 Tim. 4:1ff).10
We have two tests here:
- Bible—Is it explicitly forbidden?
- Thanksgiving—Can I thank God for it?
The first is ontological; the second is individual and introspective of the heart. The same test of prayer appears in Romans 14:6, “The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God,” and 1 Corinthians 10:30, “If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks?” Things are demonstrated to be acceptable (“made holy”) by the test of thanksgiving.
The test of individual conscience can never change the ontological status of an action. Paul and the “weak” of 1 Corinthians 8 could not eat in the temple, but the meat was still “of itself” good.11 Even though Paul was convicted not to marry, marriage was still ontologically good and in that sense, Paul could say it was his “right.”12
For those in 1st century Roman Empire, idolatrous food and wine were everywhere. Food was a significant issue of conscience. Thanksgiving for food was both a test and real thanksgiving. For them it was a test of conscience, which is rarely the case for us. Therefore, when we pray before our meals, we follow the letter of 1 Timothy 4, but miss the real point of the passage!
For us today, other things are much more likely to find rejection by our consciences.13 If we think about these issues, and apply Scripture to them, we will find that the test of thanksgiving becomes meaningful. This means if we are to apply Paul’s instructions to Timothy to ourselves, we need to pray about other things besides food as we submit our whole lives to the Word of God. We should thank God for—submit to the test of prayer—every TV show or website we view, the cars we buy, the clothes we wear, the wine we drink, etc., etc. Then we will pause and wonder, “Wait—did God give me this TV show? Can I say God wants me to watch it?” and “Does God want me to have this thing I’m going to buy? Or would He rather I deny myself something for the sake of my family, or missions?” and “Can I really thank God for this glass of wine?” and “Can I really thank God for this shirt, knowing that in my heart, I wear it because I want to inspire lust?”
In this way, whatsoever we do, we must do for the glory of God. Pastor David Doran has this to say about thankfulness as a test of conscience:
How do I eat for God’s glory? The answer is found earlier in that same passage when he says, “You give thanks.” That is, when you participate in that meal, you offer up thanks to God for it. So one practical way—you can ask this question, ‘Can I do this for God’s glory?’—Can you say before whatever you do, “Lord, thank you for the opportunity to do this. Thank you for giving this to me”? If you cannot say sincerely to the Lord, “Thank you for this gift,” then in all probability it’s not a gift from Him to be enjoyed.14
Keep praying before your food. But the test of thankfulness ought to be a check on every part of your life, especially things that you know might bother your conscience.
1 Bachman, E. Theodore, Ed. Luther’s Works, Volume 35: Word and Sacrament I, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1960, p. 138ff.
2 J. Schneider, Gerhard Kittel, ed., TDNT, Vol. III, pp. 644-5.
3 Fee, Gordon, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1988, p. 98-99.
4 Lock, Walter, D.D., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The Pastoral Epistles, T. & T. Clark, Edinburgh, 1978, p. 48.
5 A similar thing in our culture: A bunch of macho guys are at Joe’s house watching football. Joe’ wife comes in and says, “You need to empty the garbage.” Joe jumps up and goes to do it. Somebody says, “Ha—Joe’s whipped!” Is he saying that Joe’s wife has has been beating him with a whip? No. It’s a reference to a slave-master relationship. She’s in charge. That’s the real meaning. Paul meant, “branded like a slave,” which means, “Their consciences are the servants of cruel masters.”
6 1 Corinthians 7:7, “I wish that all were as I myself am.” 1 Corinthians 7:38 “So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better.”
7 Towner, Philip H., The Letters to Timothy and Titus, NICNT, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, 2006, p. 296.
8 Johnson, Luke Timothy, The First and Second Letters to Timothy, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2008, p. 240. “I take the neuter pronoun ha as including both marriage and food, even, though, grammatically, it might refer back to only food.”
9 A.T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament In Light of Historical Research, p. 411. Such pronouns are used “without regard to gender (not to number) of the antecedent.” If the antecedent is compound (“to marry and to abstain from foods”), or if the antecedent is in the form of a verb (“to marry”), the neuter may be used. For comparison, compound antecedents of mixed number and gender which share a pronoun, see Phil. 4:3, 2 Thess. 1:4, 2Peter 3:13, 2John 1:1, Acts 15:29.
10 Ridderbos, Herman, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, 1977, p. 302.
11 1 Corinthians 9:5
12 1 Corinthians 9:6